sitemap Land-Use, Demographic, Climate, and Cultural Issues Affecting Utilitarian Bicycle Travel in Cary, North Carolina

Land-Use, Climatic, Demographic, and Cultural Issues
Affecting Utilitarian Bicycle Travel in the Triangle

Steven G. Goodridge
Member, Cary Planning and Zoning Board
Vice President, North Carolina Bicycle Club



Public policy affecting bicycle transportation has received significant attention in recent years by those who wish to improve conditions for cyclists and by those who wish to change the distribution of travel modes for a variety of purposes. These efforts have typically focused on facilities engineering issues which, while important, often have less effect on the convenience, safety, and popularity of bicycle transportation than local patterns of land use, climate, population demographics, and cultural attitudes toward cycling and motoring. The purpose of this paper is to explore the major real-world factors affecting the decision to travel by bicycle in the Triangle so that urban planners may develop realistic forecasts of future transportation patterns and may influence those patterns or improve conditions for cyclists given support from the cycling public.

1. Introduction

Although bicycling was one of the most popular modes of personal transportation at the beginning of the twentieth century, the automobile eventually became the dominant mode of travel for most trips in the United States. This modal shift was due to the automobile’s ability to transport people and cargo at high speed with good protection from the elements, the growing distances between destinations in many areas of the US, the affluence of the American population, and the ability of government to provide facilities that accommodate motoring. Bicycling became largely ignored by government and the general public as a mode of transportation. In some cases, bicycle use on roadways was discouraged in misguided attempts to maximize convenience for motorists or protect public safety.

Despite this trend, bicycle transportation did not disappear because it serves a critical niche of road users who appreciate the bicycle’s affordability, simplicity, compact size, and fitness benefits, or who simply enjoy cycling. Citizens who cannot obtain cars or driver’s licenses frequently choose cycling for its convenience over walking and mass transit. Today’s cyclists still have the legal right to operate on public streets as drivers of vehicles, and traffic engineers are increasingly aware of roadway designs that minimize the effects of bicycle traffic on motorist delay while still being reasonably safe and convenient for lawfully operating cyclists.

Encouragement of bicycle transportation is now a popular idea among urban planners and environmentalists due to the low environmental impacts and reduced facilities requirements of bicycles. "Getting people out of their cars" is often viewed as a way to reduce traffic congestion and thus improve convenience for the remaining motorists. Cycling is also believed to be important to public health since it is much more likely to extend life than shorten it. Thus numerous government agencies have made a 180 degree shift in bicycle transportation policy for many of the same reasons that were once given to discourage cycling.

There is also a common belief that making cycling more popular will improve conditions for cyclists. Whether true or not, this premise has been critical to win the support of existing cyclists and numerous cycling organizations. Bicycle manufacturers are motivated to increase the popularity of bicycle ownership regardless of the conditions experienced by utilitarian cyclists, and enjoy a strong demand for off-road and "path" bicycles purchased by and for people who are often not comfortable riding on roadways. Many of the efforts to increase the popularity of bicycle transportation have been aimed at facilities improvements intended to encourage bicycle use by novice cyclists. However, the facility designs preferred by novice cyclists are sometimes disliked by experienced road cyclists. If changes in facilities end up worsening conditions for experienced cyclists who do the majority of travel by bicycle, the total amount of bicycle transportation may actually decrease.

Many existing cyclists care more about the conditions they face on a day-to-day basis than the overall popularity of their travel mode. These cyclists may exhibit skepticism toward plans to make cycling more popular if it is not clear that such plans will preserve or improve conditions for their own cycling habits. In some cases, especially in Europe, urban planners have attempted to increase the popularity of bicycle transportation by deliberately making motoring more expensive or less convenient [2]. Such a strategy is opposed by the majority of motorists in the US and has not been shown to improve conditions for existing cyclists.

Many experienced cyclists suggest that the most effective and ethical way to increase bicycle transportation is to improve conditions for those who already travel by bicycle, and replicate the conditions that experienced road cyclists prefer. The rationale behind this approach is that once novice cyclists do a significant amount of transportational cycling on roadways they will become, by definition, experienced road cyclists and desire the same facilities as the experienced road cyclists. Education programs, law enforcement, and encouragement by experienced road cyclists and cycling organizations are the most frequently recommended solutions to help novice cyclists rapidly develop habits that enable them to travel with greater safety, efficiency, and confidence on important roads to important destinations.

Because the vast majority of cycling transportation in the future will be done by cyclists similar to those who cycle in the United States today, the best way to either predict or encourage bicycle transportation is to understand the habits of today’s transportation cyclists and the factors that influence their decisions. This paper explores the major factors affecting real-world transportation cycling – particularly commuting – in the Triangle.

2. Land Use

Trip time is a major factor in determining any transportation habit. The average bicycle commute time in the United States is sixteen minutes [1], translating to a trip distance of about 3.5 miles. The average commute time for all other modes is 22 minutes [1], which suggests that the cyclist’s choice of residence location and choice of mode are closely linked. Many bicycle commuters intentionally choose location-efficient housing or work locations in order to make cycling convenient, while others choose to cycle only after their housing or work locations have been determined. The short commute distance also suggests that even when frequent bicycle commuters choose to use an automobile to get to work, they contribute less vehicle miles and hours to traffic congestion than do most automobile commuters. For many of the shortest trips, it is likely that cycling replaces slower walking modes, while for medium distance (one to ten miles) those bicycle trips typically replace slower trips by intra-city bus or faster trips by automobile. Bike racks on busses makes bus service more competitive with pure cycle-commuting at medium to long trip distances. At long distances, inter-city bus routes usually become faster than commuting by bicycle.

Separation of land uses and low development densities make trip distances longer in newer suburban areas than in older cities. Even in mixed-use urban developments, commuting distances in American cities are significantly longer than in European cities. American bicycle commuters who face longer trip distances often cycle at higher speeds than those who ride shorter distances. While a cyclist riding on a level, crowded bike path in Holland may pedal along at and average speed of 9 mph, it is not unusual for a suburban American bicycle commuter to average over 15 mph, with significant stretches over 20 mph and bursts of well over 30 mph. It is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to travel at such speeds on sidewalks and most multi-use paths. Instead, bicycle commuters who travel significant distances at high speeds operate in vehicular travel lanes on roadways - often major roadways such as thoroughfares that provide direct routes and priority over cross-traffic in order to minimize trip time. This is the main reason why suburban bicycle commuters express preference for wide-outside-lane thoroughfare designs that are friendly to high-speed cyclists and generally avoid those multi-use paths that provide indirect routes or are unsafe at high speeds.

High-density multifamily residential housing, especially rental housing, usually houses more transportation cyclists than low-density single-family detached housing. This is primarily a correlation with the age and economic status of many transportation cyclists, but it may also be influenced by the fact that multifamily units are often located near important destinations. Close proximity of goods and services such as grocery stores to either the workplace or residential housing improves the convenience of living without access to an automobile, which tends to increase bicycle use among low-income residents. Traditional mixed-use neighborhoods see greater bicycle transportation than communities of equal density but with segregated land uses.

Bicycle transportation is also more popular in areas where parking is scarce or expensive. Searching for a parking space takes time, and paying for parking fees is a significant disincentive to motoring. Dense urban environments also feature much slower average speeds for motorists than sparsely populated areas. This makes bicycle travel as fast as automobile travel – and even faster when automobile parking is inconvenient.

The most common locations for high volumes of bicycle commuting exist where high densities of residences are located near popular destinations, where automobile parking is scarce, where average automobile speeds are close to average bicycle speeds, and where roadway designs minimize friction between motorists and cyclists. In the Triangle, these conditions are most common around universities and downtowns or mixed-use destinations. Office parks that feature abundant free parking, are located more than three miles away from high density residential land uses, and are serviced by busy two-lane roads with narrow lanes and inadequate shoulders are unlikely to generate high levels of bicycle commuting. These are the primary reasons why Research Triangle Park experiences minimal bicycle transportation: most of the housing used by workers is several miles away and is separated by very narrow, congested two-lane roads that do not allow effective lane sharing between cyclists and motorists.

The attractiveness of cycling for transportation largely depends on how it compares to the convenience of other modes. For car owners, cycling must be reasonably time-competitive with automobile travel for it to see much use. For people without cars, cycling competes with transit and walking. Figure 1 compares the time required for short trips by various modes. The graph assumes an average automobile speed of 30 mph in urban/suburban traffic, average bicycle speed between 12 and 15 mph, an average bus stop distance of 1/8 mile, average bus stop wait of 7.5 minutes, an average bus speed of 15 mph including stops (typical for intra-urban traffic) and a walking speed of 3 mph.

Figure 1: Comparison of various modes for short trips

As can be seen in the Figure, cycling takes roughly twice as long as car travel in suburban environments, but for short trips the absolute delay is only a few minutes. Bicycling is significantly faster than bus travel for short trips, especially if the walk to the bus stop is long or if the waiting time is long. Also note that this figure assumes the bus travels a direct route to the destination. Bus routes are often long and circuitous, taking far longer than the average bus speed suggests. Bicycling is about five times faster than walking. These comparisons show that while car travel is fastest, bicycling can be extremely attractive to those who do not have cars and travel distances greater than 1/2 mile. Bicycling also allows the user to quickly stop at multiple locations to run errands en route, which would take a great deal of extra time and walking if done by bus. However, the availability of good bus service and pedestrian facilities enables and reinforces bicycle commuting by providing additional alternatives to car ownership. When the weather is bad, bus travel is often more attractive to people who do not have cars but usually travel by bicycle.


3. Climate

Weather variations have surprisingly little impact on levels of bicycle commuting in North America. Rainy areas of the Pacific northwest and cold northern cities have bicycle commuting rates among the highest of all areas in the continent. However, inclement weather requires that cyclists adapt their clothing, bicycle equipment, and travel habits accordingly. Cyclists’ familiarity with these adaptations and ability or willingness to make them have more impact on bicycle transportation than the climate itself.

3.1 Cold Weather

Northern outdoor enthusiasts often say there’s no such thing as bad weather - only bad clothing. Winter cyclists vary the number of layers of wicking, insulating, and wind-blocking materials they wear in order to regulate their temperature and stay comfortable while avoiding sweating, since perspiration can chill cyclists when their activity level slows.

3.2 Rain

Every commuting cyclist gets caught in the rain. If the weather is warm and the cyclist is planning to change clothes at the end of the trip, getting wet is not much of a concern. Cyclists who don’t want to get wet wear rain jackets or capes, rainproof pants, helmet covers and shoe covers, and equip their bicycles with full fenders. Since puddles last long after it stops raining, fenders are still useful to utilitarian cyclists who are able to avoid rainstorms. Rainstorms create increased danger from motorists overdriving their sight distances given reduced visibility. Lights and bright clothing can help reduce this danger. Postponing a trip until the heaviest portion of a storm passes is another strategy.

3.3 Hot Weather

Cycling any distance with significant exertion in hot weather virtually guarantees that the cyclist will perspire heavily, and will likely want to clean up and change clothes at the end of the trip. Garments designed for warm-weather cycling feature man-made fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin and cause it to evaporate very quickly. This allows the cyclist to stay much drier and more comfortable than he or she would be wearing a cotton tee-shirt and shorts.

Shower facilities at the workplace are very important to cyclists who commute in hot weather, but other solutions including washcloths and alcohol wipes can restore the cyclist to an acceptably civilized state of hygiene. Showering before a bicycle trip reduces the amount of bacteria on the skin and therefore minimizes the smell of perspiration. Salt still builds up on the skin, but can be removed with a washcloth. People with high-maintenance grooming habits are unlikely to cycle-commute in summer without shower facilities at the workplace. In the Triangle, some large businesses provide shower facilities only at fitness centers that are in separate buildings from offices. If the fitness center is more than a short walking distance away from the cyclist’s office, the cyclist must ride the bike again after showering, which may defeat the purpose of the shower. Some employers are adding new showers closer to offices to improve conditions for active employees such as joggers and bicycle commuters who do not drive cars to their exercise activities.

3.4 Darkness

Early sunsets in the winter mean that year-round bicycle commuters must often ride in the dark. For good reason, North Carolina state law (like other states) requires bicycles operated at night to be equipped with a white headlamp in front and a red light or red reflector in back. The car-bike collision rate is several times higher at night than during daylight, but the vast majority of these crashes involve cyclists operating without proper nighttime equipment and can be easily prevented. Nearly half of all cycling-related deaths are suffered by cyclists operating at night without required lighting equipment. Front reflectors are not enough to prevent crashes for moving vehicles because car headlamps often do not illuminate the cyclist’s reflectors at intersections. Nor do the small federally-mandated rear reflectors sold with most new bikes provide the cyclist much visibility to motorists overtaking at arterial speeds.

Proper equipment makes cyclists visible to motorists and can make cycling at night much safer than statistics suggest that it is. A wide variety of headlamp types for various trip times, cycling speeds, and budget constraints are available at most bike shops. Powerful rear lamps and better rear reflectors are also very affordable. Unfortunately, headlamp use is not very common among nighttime cyclists in the United States due to a lack of education and enforcement, and few cyclists upgrade their rear reflectors. Stronger enforcement and education in Britain, for example, has led to very high rate of headlamp and tail lamp use there among nighttime cyclists.

4. Demographics

Williams and Larson [1] use data from the US Census Bureau to study the demographics of US cycling commuters. Not surprisingly, analysis suggests that the cycle-commuting public consists largely of two groups: young, lower-income commuters who do not have ready access to a personal automobile, and older, more affluent commuters who own automobiles but frequently choose cycling. The younger "carless" commuters outnumber the older and more affluent "car-lite" commuters. Younger cycle-commuters tend to have lower incomes than others in their age group; older (45+) cycle-commuters tend to have higher incomes than others in their age group. Flexible work hours in higher paying jobs and greater involvement in recreational cycling may explain higher rates of cycling among more affluent commuters in the older age groups.

Nearly 80% of all cycle-commuters are male. Females make up an even smaller percentage of cycle-commuters as their age increases. Per capita, Latinos are the most likely to cycle-commute, followed by American Indians, Asians, Whites, and Blacks, who are least likely. These statistics may be affected by concentrations of minorities in geographical regions in western and mountain states that have strong cycling traditions and government support, but are also influenced by culture and economics.[1]

For low-income workers who travel short distances, avoiding car ownership by traveling by bicycle can save significant time or money by allowing commuters to work fewer hours or invest their income differently. Figure 2 shows the time required to travel both legs of a five mile (each way) commute, plus the time required to pay for the total costs of vehicle ownership. The chart assumes the fixed cost of ownership for a relatively inexpensive automobile (including insurance, registration, repairs, etc.) to be $4000 per year* ($15.38 per work day), and the cost of bicycle ownership to be $400 per year ($1.54 per work day).

Figure 2: Time required for ten mile round-trip commute by car or bike, incorporating cost of vehicle ownership and hourly take-home wage

*According to AAA Carolinas, the average fixed cost of ownership over the life of typical 2001 sedan, including depreciation, financing, insurance, registration, and taxes, but not including fuel, is $5347 per year. Economy cars range from $3500 to $5000 per year for fixed ownership costs. Older cars have lower depreciation but much higher repair costs and shorter replacement cycles, making $4000/year typical for a modest but safe and reliable car. Also note that young people who are most likely to cycle-commute pay the highest automobile insurance premiums.

At low incomes, the labor time required to pay for automobile ownership is often prohibitive. At minimum wage the commuter must work three hours per day just to own an automobile, plus drive twenty minutes round-trip to and from work, while the bike commuter can make the trip in forty minutes and pay for the bike with eighteen minutes of labor. At ten dollars per hour take-home pay, bicycling the ten-mile round-trip commute still takes less than half as much time as paying for car ownership and car-commuting, but as wages or travel distances increase the many advantages of car ownership become much more competitive.

Many cyclists choose to cycle-commute even though they own cars. Through an informal survey of 2374 self-reporting bicycle commuters in North America, Moritz [3] finds that the typical "avid" bicycle commuter is male, 39 years of age, professionally employed, with a household income of over $45,000, and averages eight one-way bike commute trips per week at an average distance of 7.2 miles each way. Health and fitness was the most commonly reported reason for cycling to work. Of those who also commute by non-bicycle modes, weather was the most commonly reported reason to not ride more often. In Moritz’s similar study of avid recreational cyclists, the average respondent was a 48-year-old male professional with a college degree and a household income in excess of $60,000 per year [4].

Bicycle commuters who own cars but cycle-commute for fitness do so to save time by overlapping their exercise time with their commute time. These cyclists usually find that their commuting time is significantly longer than needed to meet their fitness goals. Very long cycle-commute times, e.g. over one hour each way, can discourage this group from bicycle commuting because driving a car for an hour round-trip and later cycling for an hour is just as fast and provides sufficient fitness for all but the most dedicated or competitive cyclists.

In order to minimize their commute time to what is required for fitness, and because they enjoy riding fast, most cycling-enthusiast commuters try to operate at as high a cycling speed as they can manage. Since the vast majority of power exerted by cyclists riding at high speed on level terrain is spent on overcoming wind resistance, these cycle commuters often wear the same close-fitting garments worn by bicycle racers. Such attire tends to make this category of commuter distinguishable from those who cannot afford cars. Some bicycle commuters will store their clothes at work and ride racing bicycles during their commute. The appearance of these commuting cyclists is often indistinguishable from purely recreational or sports-oriented road cyclists.

Very short commute distances are not a disincentive to fitness-oriented bicycle commuters because a commuter can easily add miles to either leg of the route in order to obtain the desired workout. Most physical fitness training plans do not require exercise every day, which allows fitness-oriented commuters to avoid cycling when unpleasant weather is forecasted or to save time by motoring on some days. Fitness-oriented cyclists who own cars are also less likely to cycle in darkness or make major modifications to their bicycles practical for other utilitarian purposes such as shopping.

5. Cultural Attitudes

Public perceptions of cycling have a profound affect on who uses bicycles, how bicycles are operated, and how cyclists are treated, which in turn affects the safety, efficiency, and popularity of cycling. These perceptions vary greatly across the US and between different groups of cyclists. According to Williams and Larson [1], Southeastern states including North Carolina have the lowest levels of bicycle commuting at less than one cyclist per 1000 commuters, while Pacific and Mountain states are highest at 9.6 and 8.7 cyclists per 1000 commuters, respectively. Some California cities have cycling rates near 50 per 1000 commuters. Even with very low levels of bicycling transportation, North Carolina has one of the highest state-wide per-capita bicyclist fatality rates in the nation according to NHTSA reports over the last three years.

5.1 Toy Bicycling

Much of the variation in public attitude and resulting safety record relates to whether the bicycle is treated as a toy, as a pedestrian enhancement device, or as a street vehicle. Indoctrination into the toy bicycle view starts early in life. Many young children are given bicycles long before they have developed the cognitive ability to deal with traffic. These children’s parents typically instruct them to stay away from cars at all costs by riding on sidewalks, avoiding busy roads, or pulling off the road immediately when a car comes. The message most children learn is to be afraid of cars and stay out of the road because cars will – presumably – run over bicycles.

Balancing, avoiding traffic, not cycling at night, and wearing a helmet are often all children are taught about cycling technique, because this is often all their parents know. But as children grow older, their interest in cycling for transportation to more distant and important destinations makes it impossible for them to avoid traffic. Without proper traffic negotiation skills, these older children often ride on sidewalks or ride against traffic only to end up darting in front of moving cars when neither the child nor the motorist expects a conflict. Older children often stay out until after sunset and ride home in the dark without proper lights. Rather than being familiar with how to operate a bicycle safely and lawfully in traffic or at night, older children violate the insufficient rules their parents taught them without knowing any better set of rules that serves their more demanding travel objectives. The result is a very high crash rate for child and teen cyclists.

Virtually every teenager is taught traffic law as part of driver education. Obtaining a driver’s license and driving a motor vehicle is popularly considered a rite of passage into adulthood. Automobile use is culturally important in low-density areas of the country such as rural and suburban North Carolina. For a sixteen-year-old to continue to ride a bicycle instead of enjoying the power and convenience of automobile travel means non-compliance with social norms. Conformity with one’s peer group is very important to teenagers - especially those who are part of a largely homogeneous local culture. Consequently, teenagers overwhelmingly shun travel by bicycle after they or their friends become motorists. Teenagers spend their first few years of motoring with above-average crash rates due to their inexperience as drivers of vehicles in traffic. But even when they have mastered vehicular traffic skills, few people end up applying these concepts to bicycle travel. For the majority of the motoring population, the bicycle is reduced to an obsolete toy and not considered as a viable means of transportation.

5.2 Pedestrians on Wheels

One factor leading to substantially increased bicycle trips among teens and adults is the lack of access to a car, typically due to economic reasons. These utilitarian cyclists choose to bicycle because it is much faster than walking - the mode it usually replaces - and faster than bus service. Many of these cyclists fall back on their childhood perceptions of bicycling and ride on sidewalks while attempting to avoid traffic, in effect treating the bicycle as a pedestrian enhancement device. Bicycle accident studies, such as by Wachtel and Lewiston [5] show that the car-bike collision rate for sidewalk cyclists is about twice that of road cyclists, and the car-bike collision rate for wrong-way sidewalk cyclists is about four times that of road cyclists, normalized for traffic conditions, despite the fact that sidewalk cyclists are forced to operate much more slowly than road cyclists. The 1999 AASHTO Guidelines for the Development of Bicycle Facilities specifically warns against sidewalk bicycle riding: "...Sidewalks are typically designed for pedestrian speeds and maneuverability and are not safe for higher speed bicycle use. ... At intersections, motorists are often not looking for bicyclists (who are traveling at higher speeds than pedestrians) entering the crosswalk area, particularly when motorists are making a turn. Sight distance is often impaired..."[6]

Cyclists who ride on sidewalks, ride against traffic, and stay at the edge of the roadway at all times as a pedestrian on wheels attempt to reduce their exposure to unlikely collisions from behind, which they greatly fear, but consequently reduce their visibility and predictability to automobile drivers. This greatly increases the already much higher risk of collision at driveways and intersections. Table 1 shows the most common causes of car-bike crashes to teens and adults riding in urban environments as ranked by Forester [7]. As can seen in the table, the greatest dangers to cyclists involve being unseen or unpredictable to motorists, mostly at intersections, rather than collisions from behind when the cyclist is traveling straight.

Table 1: Most Common Causes of Car-Bike Collisions for Teen and Adult Cyclists

Teen cyclists Adult Cyclists
  1. Wrong-way cyclist hit by motorist restarting from stop sign
  2. Cyclist turning left from curb lane
  3. Cyclist exiting commercial driveway
  4. Wrong-way cyclist running stop sign
  5. Wrong-way cyclist head-on
  6. Right-of-way error at uncontrolled intersection
  7. Motorist entering commercial driveway
  8. Cyclist running red light
  9. Cyclist turning left from curb lane, hitting car coming from opposite direction
  10. Wrong-way cyclist hit by motorist turning right on red
  1. Motorist turning left
  2. Signal light change
  3. Motorist turning right
  4. Motorists restarting from stop sign
  5. Motorist exiting commercial driveway
  6. Motorist overtaking unseen cyclist (mostly in darkness)
  7. Motorist overtaking too closely
  8. Cyclist hitting slower-moving car

Another factor that increases cycling use after age 16 is participation in recreational road cycling for sport or advanced physical fitness. Because these cyclists are interested in maximizing the speed, efficiency, and safety of cycling, they quickly determine the impossibility of operating a bicycle at speed on pedestrian facilities such as sidewalks, and instead ride with motor traffic on roadways. The positive effects of cycling club peer groups and their focus on effective cycling technique generally leads to a much lower crash rate for recreational club cyclists than for other cyclists. Data presented by Forester [7, 8] and shown in Table 2 below illustrates the reduced accident rate for club cyclists.

Table 2: Accident Rates (Including Falls) for Different Types of Cyclists

Cyclist Type Miles per accident
Children 1,500
College-associated adults 2,000
Club cyclists 10,000

According to bicycle accident studies reviewed in [7, 8] collisions from cars approaching straight-traveling cyclists from behind account for about two percent of all urban daylight car-bike collisions, and less than three tenths of one percent of all accidents causing injury to urban daylight cyclists. The most common cause of fatal car-bike crashes involves cycling at night without lights. Wrong-way cycling, drunk bicyclists, and drunk or out-of-control motorists constitute most of remaining causes of cycling fatalities. Experienced road cyclists minimize their risk from collisions from behind as well as in front by being as visible and predictable as possible, and by more frequently obeying the rules of the road, and consequently enjoy much lower crash rates and faster travel. (Unfortunately, many club cyclists have a bad habit of running stop signs or operable red lights after looking or listening for traffic. The may also pass stopped motorists on the right, and follow other cyclists through an intersection without looking themselves. Not only do these habits set a bad example and irritate some motorists, but they cause problems when the cyclists inevitably fail to see or anticipate unexpected hazards and are unable to stop in time. However, these cyclists still do much better at avoiding the most common crash types that befall less experienced cyclists.) Note that although most cyclists prefer low-traffic cycling conditions, experience shows that avid road cyclists are safer than other cyclists even when they operate on busy roads and alone, away from club groups, as long as they continue to follow the rules of the road. Such cyclists make up a large part of the more affluent segment of the bicycle commuting population.

5.3 Vehicular Cycling

Empirical evidence in the form of every legitimate government-sponsored safety study and cyclists’ real-life experience supports the premise that "bicyclists fare best when they act, and are treated in return, as drivers of vehicles, with the same rights and responsibilities that motorists have" as written by Forester [7, 8]. The same operating behavior that minimizes crashes for motorists also minimizes crashes for cyclists, especially at high vehicle traffic volumes, because the same universal principles of vehicular traffic science apply. Cycling as the driver of a vehicle in compliance with this concept is known as vehicular cycling, and is the safest way known for cycling on any roadway. Traffic laws in North Carolina and every other state are closely matched to the principles of vehicular cycling on roads. For instance, NC General Statute 20-4.01 states "…for the purposes of this Chapter bicycles shall be deemed vehicles and every rider of a bicycle upon a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those which by their nature can have no application." Cyclists therefore have the same legal rights and responsibilities as motorists when operating in roadways. When states or cities have occasionally tried to limit these rights or modify these responsibilities, crash rates have increased for cyclists while the convenience of cycling decreased. Laws violating basic scientific principles of traffic safety and cyclists’ constitutional travel rights have repeatedly failed legal challenges by cyclists and cycling organizations.

The rights and responsibilities of drivers of vehicles are inseparable. One cannot operate safely on roadways without obeying the rules of the road, as is evidenced by the high percentage of car-bike crashes involving unlawful cyclist behavior. Nor can one obey traffic laws and operate a vehicle properly on roadways without the right to occupy space in travel lanes. The legal requirement (based on crash prevention) for drivers to position their vehicles at intersections according to their intended destinations means that cyclists must merge with automobile traffic and occupy some space in travel lanes. Since drivers of vehicles do not have eyes in the backs of their heads, but have very good vision directly in front of them, no driver is required to yield to a vehicle approaching from behind except when the driver is preparing to move laterally (or when it is an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens). Attempts by cyclists to avoid occupying lane space or avoid proper destination positioning generate many of the common crashes shown in Table 1.

5.4 Myths, Stereotypes, and Harassment

Despite strong evidence in favor of the safety and efficiency of vehicular cycling technique, especially on important roads, and the legal requirement to operate bicycles as vehicles, public support has not rallied behind vehicular cycling. The vast majority of the adult motoring public still harbors the fears of cycling in traffic that they learned as children, and do not believe that cycling can be done safely on busy roadways. Many motorists observe the unpredictable behavior of children on toys or adults operating bikes as pedestrian enhancement devices and do not feel comfortable sharing the road with cyclists. Others observe recreational club cyclists acting as drivers of vehicles on roadways, occupying travel lanes, and believe that such activity is an inappropriate use of public roads, especially when cyclists can cause temporary delays or other inconvenience for faster motorists. Many simply don’t know that cyclists are legally allowed to operate on roadways at all. Some motorists believe that since bicycles are not licensed or taxed by government, and because cyclists do not pay gasoline tax for their bicycle travel, that cyclists do not deserve to use roadways. A few motorists assert that despite the legal requirements for motorists to respect the cyclist’s legal right of way, anyone in a position of vulnerability who attempts to assert their rights among more powerful users will get what they deserve. Some motorists also fail to understand the functionality of cycling-specific clothing, and interpret cycling garments as an expression of fashion taste, desire for attention, or even sexual orientation. These factors lead to harassment of cyclists by that segment of the motoring population least tolerant of non-compliance with their views of appropriate behavior. Sometimes the harassment involves throwing of objects at cyclists or touching or pushing cyclists, or in rare situations even running cyclists off the road. In a few extreme cases, motorists and car passengers who have been caught intentionally forcing cyclists off the road have been convicted of attempted murder and are currently serving prison sentences.

Usually harassment is limited to yells and horn honks that create little danger for cyclists. However, any form of harassment can make cycling on roadways unpleasant. Women cyclists are especially concerned about harassment when cycling alone while wearing somewhat immodest cycling-specific clothing, and are therefore less likely to cycle-commute without the support of other cyclists.

5.5 Government Policy Affecting Cycling

Federal, state, and local branches of government have generally protected the legal right for cyclists to operate bicycles on most roadways as drivers of vehicles, although efforts in some states to limit bicycle travel for the purpose of motorist convenience have generated successful challenges from cycling organizations. Unable to eliminate cyclists from most important roads, many government agencies and municipalities have since attempted to make cycling on roads safer, more pleasant, and more convenient for all users. This effort has usually been focused on facility modifications to improve motorist convenience, but not much science has been applied to their design, and their effects on experienced utilitarian cyclists have sometimes been ignored. In some cases, hazardous or inappropriate facilities have been built in order to get cyclists out of the way of motorists, encourage use by novice cyclists, or to appear to be "doing something" for cyclists. The North Carolina Department of Transportation recommends wide curb lanes as the best facility enhancement for improving motorist-cyclist road sharing because wide curb lanes avoid many of the problems created by segregation by vehicle type while still reducing friction between cyclists and motorists. This policy is functionally very good for cyclists, but has little political visibility. Off-street path and trail projects tend to get more political attention, but these paths are typically built in sparsely developed areas and rarely connect the most important endpoints for urban utilitarian cyclists. The vast majority of dollars spent on engineering improvements for cycling have been based on improving convenience for motorists or reducing the rarest overtaking-type collisions from behind, while relatively little has been done to address the much more likely car-bike crashes at intersections, car-bike crashes involving unlighted cyclists, and bike-pedestrian crashes on sidewalks and paths. Even published studies that admit the limited potential of bikeways to reduce crashes or increase utilitarian cycling still recommend more bikeways because bikeways are popular among novice cyclists who are enticed to ride on them by a false sense of security [9]. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that cycling on such pathways develops the skills or confidence necessary to operate effectively on normal roads or become a regular bicycle commuter.

Although experience shows that a cyclist’s traffic skill, use of lights at night, and motorist competence are the most important factors influencing car-bike crash rates, and that some special bike facilities such as bicycle sidewalks and multi-use paths often increase crash and injury rates, government policy on bicycling safety has been overwhelmingly focused on helmet use and construction of special bike facilities. Brain injuries caused by falls are often preventable by use of helmets, so gentle encouragement of helmet use is good for public safety. Traffic speeds and volumes on many roads are incompatible with the cognitive abilities of child cyclists, and are uncomfortable to many adult cyclists, making recreational bike trails and multi-use paths away from roadways very popular. However, the promotion of mandatory helmet laws and special bike facilities has often been accompanied by efforts to paint cycling - especially cycling on normal roadways - as inherently unsafe. The more that government power has been used to pursue helmet law compliance and to build special bike facilities, the more it has frightened the general public away from cycling on ordinary roadways and undermined motorists’ acceptance of cycling on normal roads. But since mandatory helmet laws cannot provide adequate protection in many car-bike collisions and bike paths cannot be built to be as convenient and safe as roadway cycling for the vast majority of useful, convenient bicycle transportation, these efforts have tended to reduce utilitarian cycling while failing to provide the cycling public with the knowledge and support they need for effective traffic negotiation on important roads.

6. Conclusions and Recommendations

To improve conditions for utilitarian bicycle transportation and take maximum advantage of its latent potential, public policy must address the needs and behavior of both avid cyclists and people who don’t have cars. For people who don’t have cars, access to every destination by foot, bus, taxi, or bike is essential; among these options the bicycle is usually fastest and cheapest for those who are physically fit. Young and low-income citizens make up the largest percentage of utilitarian cyclists, and their bicycle use is highly sensitive to their ability to live without a car. For more affluent people who own cars but choose to cycle, their decision to cycle so must be supported by employers, law enforcement, and public leaders in order to compensate for social disapproval and harassment by motorists. All cyclists should be educated, encouraged, and enforced to operate their vehicles in a lawful and predictable manner on roadways in accordance with traffic laws and principles that have been proven to prevent crashes. Motorists must be educated, encouraged, and enforced to allow lawful cyclists to travel in peace and safety, and should be discouraged from harassing cyclist who operate on roadways in a vehicular manner even when this causes temporary inconvenience for motorists.

6.1 Universal Access

Bicycle access to every destination requires safe accommodation of bicycling on every roadway except controlled-access freeways that are redundant to the local road network and do not serve local destinations. Safe accommodation is made primarily by the users of roadways, although engineering improvements such as wide outside lanes can play a role in making road sharing more convenient and comfortable, and sometimes more safe. Cyclists should never be prohibited or discouraged from using any part of any street that is useful for traveling to their destination according to the rules of the road. Cyclists’ legal and constitutional right to travel on every roadway must be protected by government despite disapproval from some motorists. Without unambiguous public support of this right, many cyclists will continue to be treated as and feel like illegitimate users of roadways, and will not be empowered to use the safest and most efficient vehicular techniques for traffic negotiation to reach their destinations.

The easiest way to maximize the convenience of bicycle transportation for both cyclists and motorists who share the roads with them is to cluster contiguous urban land uses within a distance of a few miles and connect them with a redundant network of roadways featuring wide outside lanes that allow safe and comfortable lane sharing. Where narrow lanes on multi-lane roads are necessary, motorists can pass cyclists by changing lanes, but traffic speeds must be slower. Such roads experience high levels of bicycle transportation in many older urban places because cycling is affected more by land use and economics than facility design. The placement of a mixture of employment centers, housing, and businesses providing first-tier goods and services within close proximity of one another improves the ability of citizens to live without automobiles while at the same time attracting automobile owners to bicycle commuting for fitness, enjoyment and convenience.

6.2 Vehicular Cycling Education and Enforcement

The safest known method for bicycle travel is to operate as the driver of a vehicle, in vehicular travel lanes, obeying all traffic laws that apply to drivers of vehicles including use of lights at night. This is currently the legal requirement in North Carolina for cyclists traveling on roadways. Uniform behavior of cyclists according to vehicular driving principles is the most likely way to reduce crashes for cyclists while improving the convenience of cycling. Although no scientific evidence exists to support that any other technique is safer on any given mixed-traffic roadway, there is little public awareness or acceptance of vehicular cycling technique. Improvement will require public education coupled with the successful experience of those cyclists who learn to operate properly.

Traffic education for cyclists is virtually identical to traffic education for motorists. Since car-bike crashes for teen cyclists reach a peak just before they obtain their driver’s licenses, and car crashes by teen motorists peak just after they obtain their driver’s licenses, it may be beneficial to teach traffic laws and vehicular cycling to teenagers a few years before they begin driving cars. This would allow teen cyclists to avoid many of their most common crashes, and allow teens to practice driving vehicles and obeying the vehicular rules of the road long before they present a potential danger to other people as automobile operators. When they later begin driving cars, they would already understand how to drive in traffic, and would only need to focus on the specifics of automobile control. Vehicular cycling education teaches more than just techniques for traffic negotiation; it teaches the principles behind how traffic behaves as a system and the scientific causes of crashes. Vehicular cyclists are not only safer cyclists, but are also safer motorists because they have a greater awareness of traffic and understand the importance of respecting the right of way of other road users.

Law enforcement has an important role in encouraging safer cycling behavior by reaching out to those cyclists who exhibit the most dangerous behaviors, such as riding at night without a headlamp, riding on the wrong side of the road, and running red lights. However, some cyclists who do not believe in vehicular cycling are skeptical about government’s motives to enforce traffic law. These cyclists believe that their actions are not hurting anyone, and may interpret any police intervention as another form of anti-cyclist harassment. But non-vehicular cycling can hurt pedestrians and other cyclists, and can cause otherwise preventable crashes with lawful motorists. Unlawful, dangerous cycling practices also create negative stereotypes of cyclists that lead to popular requests to prohibit cycling on important roads. Preserving the legal right to travel by bicycle on public roadways requires that cyclists’ legal responsibilities be enforced.

In order to overcome cyclists’ skepticism toward police action, law enforcement should be carried out with an educational, assistance-oriented approach rather than a punitive one. Cyclists who violate the most basic laws and principles of crash prevention should be given educational materials and warnings rather than fines unless they do so habitually. Cyclists who ride at night without a headlamp could be given inexpensive lamps and reflectors donated by cycling organizations in order to get themselves home (or the officer could arrange them transportation home) in conjunction with educational materials, warnings, and the condition that they return the lamp and/or attend a vehicular cycling class. Cyclists who insist on cycling on sidewalks and crosswalks may be allowed to do so as long as they yield to pedestrians on pedestrian facilities and fulfill the legal responsibilities of pedestrians at intersections.

6.3 Opportunities for Collaboration

Many of the cyclists who depend on bicycles for transportation do not have peer groups that reinforce effective techniques for cycling on roadways. They may not be fluent in English or familiar with their legal rights and responsibilities as cyclists, and often ride the same way they act as pedestrians by traveling on sidewalks and against traffic. These cyclists often have no special enthusiasm for cycling as a sport or travel mode, and are not major consumers of equipment at upscale bike shops. In short, these cyclists are very hard for cyclist advocates to reach with education and encouragement efforts, even though they may have the most to gain from it. (Cycling organizations often have enough trouble encouraging lawful vehicle operation among their own ranks.) The carless have an acute need to access important destinations by bicycle, but often lack the knowledge or sense of entitlement to use roadways as drivers of vehicles.

Meanwhile, as traffic volumes increase, more affluent car owners who enjoy recreational and utilitarian cycling find themselves under increasing social pressure to abandon important roads to the motoring majority, especially when those roadways are built with narrow lanes. Members of recreational road cycling organizations are experienced users of roadways, are often interested in promoting cycling and cycling safety, and have substantial economic power, but often find themselves put on the defensive regarding their legal right to cycle on public roads. Avid fitness-oriented and recreational cyclists cannot accept banishment to slow, hazardous bike paths and sidewalks; if forced to give up cycling on roads, they are more likely to give up cycling in urban areas altogether.

Finally, various government transportation and public assistance agencies often find themselves struggling to facilitate travel by those who do not have cars. Government often knows who needs to travel without a car and who needs special assistance. The alternative transportation programs usually funded by government – mass transit, on-demand ride programs, taxi subsidies, and bikeways – all have significant costs far in excess of what has been spent on improving the traffic behavior and efficiency of utilitarian cyclists, and these approaches are often much less convenient than vehicular cycling on roadways. It would be in the interests of roadway cycling organizations, transportation agencies, and public assistance agencies to work together to provide comprehensive cycling education to empower all cyclists to travel safely and efficiently as lawful, legitimate users on every road.


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[8] Forester, J., Bicycle Transportation, MIT Press, 1994

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